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Universal Broadband: How Can Barriers to Access Be Overcome?

Our 10 government, industry and nonprofit representatives answer in what ways they think barriers to broadband access can be overcome.

Editor's note: Recently the FCC estimated that about half of the residents living in rural America can’t get the advanced broadband service that metropolitan areas take for granted. Some rural residents can't get any Internet connection at all. And even some city dwellers lack access: At Government Technology’s Los Angeles Digital Government Summit in August, CIO Ted Ross said that almost a third of the city does not have broadband Internet access.

But as broadband in the United States inches toward utility status, Government Technology asks representatives from government, industry and nonprofits why the broadband equity gap exists and how to fix it in our five-part series: The Need for Speed, which details who each of our representatives is.

In part three of our series, 10 representatives answer the question: How can barriers to broadband access be overcome?

Chris Mitchell: One way is to change the expectations. Historically a lot of municipal fiber networks were expected to break even financially. And we don’t expect our roads to break even financially. We expect our roads to enable many indirect benefits and be the platform for commerce. We should increasingly expect the same of open fiber networks that are publicly owned.

Michael Mattmiller: It’s bringing stakeholders together to think about which groups are best suited to providing services to close the broadband gap. In Seattle, we [are reducing regulatory barriers, building public-private partnerships]. If, and only if, those first two options aren’t successful, we’ll need to understand our ability to be a municipal retail provider.

Joanne Hovis: Federal, state and local policy should favor competition and investments. All federal and state broadband and telecom funding mechanisms should be open to competition and not restricted to incumbent phone companies, as many of them still are. State laws that restrict the participation of local communities or any other entity in deploying broadband or offering broadband services are counterproductive and only serve to reduce broadband investments and innovation, particularly in rural areas where private entities are less interested in investing.
Doug Brake: It’s fundamentally a local problem. We need local nonprofits because it gets down to a level of going door to door and talking with people, educating them on the importance of what’s available online and the advantages of broadband. The NTIA has a program called the Broadband Adoption Toolkit that includes advice and best practices for helping people get online.
Miguel Gamiño: The solution is a lot of times going to be something that’s custom fit to that particular community because infrastructure challenges, community needs and demographics are different. I think it’s something that requires the community to take into account practices from others, but I don’t think there’s a template.
Ric Lumbard: It’s a good idea to value public-private partnership. And if we can do that, then we can aggregate all our strengths, capital, design and vision for an area and come together and bring more resources to bear. Competition is the enemy of partnership. We need to be able to trust each other that we’re not going to steal each other’s milk and that we’re going to bring our resources to bear for the benefit of a powerful broadband state.
Heather Burnett Gold: Here’s a place where the federal government can really use its power as a bully pulpit to raise awareness, to educate consumers, to work with state and local government to make them aware of the benefits of bringing fiber and fair rules in this investment equation. I really think a full-scale campaign could be handled by the federal government.
John Jones: [Federal programs like] the Connect America Fund. That fund is taking the existing high-cost Universal Service Fund and repurposing it in a way that allows providers to vie for that funding and get additional money to those areas that really just are not cost-efficient to serve. That’s one thing the government is doing that has the potential to bring hundreds of thousands of households online across the country, depending on which providers accept the money.
Bernie O’Donnell: You can subsidize the costs to end users, and that can be done in a way similar to the way E-Rate services or universal telephone service have been done. In some cases, the services could be provided by an educational entity, a nonprofit or government, or some partnership of these.
Robert Bell: At ICF, we are not proponents of every city or county or town in the world building its own network. We think the private sector, when it’s doing what it should be doing, delivers magnificent, quality service at an affordable price. But there clearly are gaps in the market, holes in coverage and what economists call market failures — places where the market isn’t doing its job because it’s hard for companies to make a good business case. [That’s] where intervention is required.

Colin wrote for Government Technology and Emergency Management from 2010 through most of 2016.